The Baltimore Health Department fined Ki Jeong $100 last week because the margarine he uses in his Healthy Choice barbeque stand at Lexington Market twice exceeded the limits set by the city's year-old trans-fat ban. It was the first enforcement action of the law.
But the damages have gone far beyond the fine.
"I'm losing customers," he said Tuesday. "When it's publicized on a TV news show, people think I'm still using it [the high-fat margarine]. That's in people's minds, even today."
But he's not. Jeong said he switched to a fat-free margarine after a city health inspector cited him. But his business is still off by a third this week.
"Why should I be punished twice?" he asked. "I paid the fine. This is much more brutal than closing down. … I'm desperate."
Health Department inspectors in July found the store using margarine containing 3 grams of trans fat per serving, according to Juan Gutierrez, assistant commissioner for environmental health. That exceeded the limit of 0.5 grams per serving set by the ban, which took effect in September 2009.
Jeong said he discarded the product and asked his vendor for a lower-fat replacement. But health officials went back this month and found the store serving margarine with 2 grams per serving, and issued the citation.
"They made me the example," Jeong lamented. TV news reports on the citation somehow reached his friends in Korea, who telephoned to ask what happened.
He said he's crystal clear with his vendor now. "I try to get only trans-fat-free margarine," he said, even though it costs $6 more per box.
Of more than 100 businesses found in violation during the ban's first year, this was the only one found in violation a second time, said Health Department spokesman Brian Schleter.
"While we are pleased with the high rates of compliance we've seen since the ban took effect," said Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot, "we will continue to sanction businesses that repeatedly fail to comply." Repeated violations can lead to closure and license revocation.
Most trans fats are artificial fats that elevate blood levels of the "bad" cholesterol that contributes to heart disease, and lower "good" cholesterol that works to clear arteries. Heart disease kills 500,000 Americans each year, and studies have linked as many as 30,000 premature deaths a year to trans fats.
For more on the ban, visit baltimorehealth.org/transfat.